The Free Press
Few would argue that the Minnesota State University men's hockey team rebounded this season in ways that were hard to imagine.
The team went from consecutive 11th-place finishes in Western Collegiate Hockey Association to be tied for fourth. For the first time in a decade, the team made the WCHA Final Five and also the NCAA national tournament, finishing the season just missing the top 10 ranking at No. 11.
The lack of competitive playoff experience for a whole generation of players may have tipped the scales against MSU, which lost 7-2 in the Final Five and 4-0 in the national tournament. Fans were expecting and hoping for more.
Nevertheless, the team can build on this year's success, defeating many top-ranked teams such as North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and defeating most of the teams it was expected to beat.
It appears this year will be a good year for the Mavericks at the box office as well. Average attendance was up and several games were near capacity with the Minnesota and North Dakota games offering standing-room only.
But MSU's biggest challenges may not be on the ice next year. They enter a new WCHA that looks nothing like the old one. The new WCHA will be without top-drawing teams such as Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and St. Cloud, some of which brought significant fan bases to Mankato for hockey weekends.
Teams of the new WCHA, including two Alaska teams, will almost certainly not equal the out-of-town fan numbers of this year or even the past two years.
That should concern MSU as well as the city of Mankato and managers of the Verizon Wireless Center.
Expectations in the new WCHA will be higher for MSU. Given no other teams from the reformulated league were in the national tournament and with MSU returning several top players, MSU will be the favorite to finish atop the league.
Some fans are not as excited about seeing MSU play teams such as Bowling Green instead of North Dakota, Northern Michigan instead of Minnesota, and Ferris State instead of Minnesota-Duluth or Wisconsin.
Given the lower interest in competition, the marketing of Maverick hockey will be a real challenge. We'd like to see the city and MSU partner in ways to generate new buzz around town about the level of play and the competition.
Clearly, both will have to do more to promote this new WCHA, which is essentially a new entertainment product.
Community leaders face two daunting challenges: promoting that league as quality hockey and getting people to pay for it.